Is Thanksgiving only for people who are living the life they’ve always wanted?
Apparently for some people it is; my friend’s Thanksgiving idea was a disaster. She had asked her children living around the country to group text the family with things they were thankful for. That way, they could share a virtual Thanksgiving together.
Everyone was strangely silent. After a few days, her son texted: “Mom, if my life were as good as yours, I could be thankful too. But I don’t have anything to be thankful for.” Her daughter echoed a similar sentiment.
My friend laughed as she related the story to me and said, “I guess that was an epic fail. Clearly no one in my family has anything to be thankful for!”
While my friend could, thankfully, find the humor in her experience, it made me think about gratitude. Gratitude is a deeply biblical concept. The Old Testament feasts were celebrations of God’s goodness and reminders to the Israelites to give thanks for all things. The Psalmists were continually thanking God, even amid trials. Paul frequently exhorts us to abound in thanksgiving. Throughout the Bible, gratitude is both encouraged and commended.
Not surprisingly, the secular world is now discovering the importance of gratitude. In his book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Robert Emmons recounts studies that he conducted to see the effect of thankfulness on everyday life. In one study, he divided participants into three groups, and asked each to make weekly entries in a journal over 10 weeks. Individuals in the first group was asked to write down five things that happened that they were grateful for from the week before; the second group was asked to write down five hassles from the previous week; and the third group was asked to simply list five events from the prior week.
The gratitude group didn’t necessarily list major events or material blessings but mentioned things like seeing the sunset through the clouds or experiencing the generosity of friends. The hassles group mentioned things like paying taxes or coming home to a messy kitchen. The third group just listed things they had done.
The results of the study were shocking. Those in the gratitude group felt 25% happier than the other two, were more optimistic about the future, felt healthier and less stressed, and even slept better. Nothing in their lives had changed - they had simply found things to be grateful for. These results were sustained weeks and even months later.
Emmons discovered that gratitude, which he says is "wanting what we have," can measurably change our lives.
In a separate study, Emmons sent surveys out to over 300 people struggling with physical deterioration, primarily post-polio syndrome, and asked them to write about a time when they felt a sense of gratitude. Given the difficulties of post-polio, Emmons wasn't sure if they could comply. Of course, some polio survivors, like this 64-year old respondent, found little to be grateful for:
"My feelings of gratitude are fleeting and few and far between. I suffer from post-polio and have a great deal of anger toward this disease. It robbed me of my ability to continue my career, which I truly loved, and has had a deleterious effect on my everyday life. There is a lot of physical pain involved, to say nothing of the emotional stress. Almost any activity I want to do is no longer a spontaneous happening. At this point in my life, I have an estranged relationship with God. I get no comfort from being in a church or praying…I've no intention of taking my own life, but there are days when I feel that I'd just as soon not be here."
I too have struggled to be grateful in the face of post-polio, but I have found negativity makes the situation even worse. Not only for me, but for the people around me. The next account is from a woman who contracted polio at age 7.
"Our family was on vacation in Florida. My brother and I had been playing in the waves along the beach when I became very chilled and was shivering with a high fever of almost 107°… For several days and nights, everyone expected me to die … My mother said that the bobby pins and my hair rusted from the sweat when my fever broke. I clearly remember mother telling me this and also the gratitude upon her face and in her voice that I had lived. [This] made a profound impression on me, which is why I have always felt that life is a gift... a gift to be cherished."
Being grateful for life and its everyday blessings, like the latter account, was more the norm among polio survivors, which initially surprised Emmons. But it’s benefits were clear. We can see from history and current research that being grateful in our adversity develops our character, makes us more resilient and changes our outlook. As I mentioned in my last post, suffering can be a gift.
The Pilgrims are a great example of being grateful in adversity; most of them were thankful just to be alive by the fall of 1621. When the settlers celebrated the first Thanksgiving, only 52 out of the original 102 who had set sail were still living. Almost every family had dug a grave for a husband, wife or child. And yet despite these hardships, Governor Bradford declared a day of thanksgiving towards God to acknowledge and be grateful for what they had rather than fixate on what they had lost. They understood that their God was a God to be thanked in both abundance and adversity.
How do we cultivate gratitude in our lives? We can ask the Lord to give us grateful hearts. We can take hard situations and actively look for positive things that have resulted from them. We can journal what we are thankful for each day. We can choose to focus on common blessings like a brisk fall day, or a hot cup of coffee, or a life-giving conversation. All those things can reframe our perspective.
When we practice gratitude, we will be surprised at how much it changes us. We will understand why happiness and gratitude are inextricably linked. And as we specifically name the things we are grateful for, we will discover that our gratitude list is unending.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 136:1)